How tracking and technology in cars are being weaponized by abusive partners
After almost 10 years of marriage, Christine Dowdle wanted out. Her husband is no longer the charming man she had fallen in love with. He had become narcissistic, abusive and unfaithful, she said. In September 2022, after one of their fights turned violent, Ms. Dowdle, a real estate agent in Covington, La. She ran away from her home in 1977 and drove her Mercedes-Benz C300 sedan to her daughter's home near Shreveport, five hours away. She filed a domestic abuse report with police two days later.
Her husband, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent, didn't want to let her go. He called her repeatedly, she said, first appealing to her to return and then threatening her. He stopped responding to her, she said, even though he texted and called her hundreds of times.
Ms Dowdall, 59, began occasionally seeing a strange new message on the display of her Mercedes about a location-based service called “Embrace”. The second time it happened, he took a photo and searched the name online.
“I realized, oh my God, he's tracking me,” Ms. Dowdle said.
“Embrace” was part of “Mercedes me” – a suite of connected services for the car, accessible via a smartphone app. Ms Dowdall had only used the Mercedes Me app to make auto loan payments. He did not realize that this service could also be used to track the location of the car. One night, when she went to a male friend's house, her husband sent the man a message with a thumbs-up emoji. According to the detective working on his case, a nearby camera captured his car driving in the area.
Ms Dowdall repeatedly called Mercedes customer service to try to remove her husband's digital access to the car, but the loan and ownership remained in his name, a decision the couple took because his credit score was better than hers. Even though she was making payments, had a restraining order against her husband and was allowed sole use of the car during the divorce proceedings, Mercedes representatives told her that her husband was a customer so she would be able to maintain access. will be. There was no button he could press to disconnect the app from the vehicle.
“This isn't the first time I've heard something like this,” one of the representatives told Ms. Dowdle.
A Mercedes-Benz spokesperson said the company did not comment on “individual customer matters”.
A car, to its driver, can feel like a sanctuary. A place to sing favorite songs, cry, express anger, or drive to a place where no one knows you're going.
But the truth is that few places in our lives are less personal.
Modern cars are called “smartphones on wheels” because they are connected to the Internet and have myriad methods of data collection. camera And seat weight sensors to record how hard you brake and turn. Most drivers don't realize how much information their cars are collecting and who has access to it, said Jane Caltrider, a privacy researcher at Mozilla, who reviewed it. Privacy policies of over 25 car brands And there were surprising revelations, such as Nissan saying it could collect information about “sexual activity.”
“People think their car is private,” Ms Caltrider said. “With computers, you know where the camera is and you can put a tape on it. Once you buy a car and you feel it is invasive to privacy, what should you do?”
Privacy advocates are concerned about how car companies are using and sharing consumers' data – with insurance companies, For example – and the inability of drivers to turn off data collection. California Privacy Regulator is investigating auto industry.
For car owners, the benefit of this data-palooza has come in the form of smartphone apps that allow them to check a car's location even when they forget where it's parked; Remotely locking and unlocking the vehicle; And to turn it on or off. Some apps can remotely set the car's climate control, sound the horn, or turn on its lights. After setting up the app, the car owner can give access to a limited number of other drivers.
Domestic violence experts say these convenient features are being weaponized in abusive relationships, and car manufacturers are unwilling to assist victims. This is especially complicated when the victim is a co-owner of the car, or his or her name is not on the title.
Detective Kelly Downey of the Bossier Parish Sheriff's Office, who had conducted a stalking investigation on Ms. Dowdle's husband, also contacted Mercedes more than a dozen times, but to no avail, she said. She had previously dealt with another case of harassment via a connected car app – a woman whose husband started her Lexus while it was sitting in the garage at midnight. Even in that case, Detective Downey was unable to get the husband's access to the car company cut off; The victim sold her car.
Detective Downey said, “The automobile manufacturers have to make a way for us to stop this.” “Technology may be our gift, but it is also very scary because it can harm you.”
Detective Downey said the Mercedes also failed to respond to a search warrant. Instead she found evidence that the husband was using the Mercedes Me app, obtaining records of his internet activity.
Unable to get help from Mercedes, Ms. Dowdle took her car to an independent mechanic this year and paid $400 to disable remote tracking. It also disabled the car's navigation system and its SOS button, a device to seek help in an emergency.
“I didn't care. I didn't want him to know where I was,'' said Ms. Dowdle, whose husband died by suicide last month. “Car manufacturers should provide the ability to turn off this tracking.”
Eva Galperin, an expert on tech-enabled domestic abuse at the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, said she had seen another case of an abuser using a car app to track a victim's movements, and the victim realizing it. Didn't happen because he's “not the one who set it up.”
“As far as I know, there are no guidelines for how to get your partner out of your car after your breakup,” Ms. Galperin said.
Controlling partners have tracked their victims' cars in the past using GPS devices and Apple AirTags, Ms. Galperin said, but connected car apps offer new opportunities for harassment.
According to a lawsuit filed anonymously in San Francisco Superior Court in 2020, a San Francisco man used his remote access to the Tesla Model Used. ,Reuters previously reported on the case.)
According to a legal complaint against her husband and Tesla, the car's lights and horn were activated in a parking garage. On hot days, she would approach her car and find that the heat was rising so much that she became uncomfortably hot, while on cold days, she would find that the air conditioner had been activated remotely. She said in court documents that her husband had used the location-finding feature on the Tesla to identify her new residence, which he had hoped to keep a secret from her.
The woman, who had obtained a restraining order against her husband, contacted Tesla several times to revoke her husband's access to the car — she included some emails in the legal filing — but was not successful.
Tesla did not respond to a request for comment. In legal filings, Tesla denied responsibility for the harassment; Based on the husband's denial, questions were raised as to whether this had happened; And raised questions on the credibility of the woman. (She claimed that some of the things her husband did, such as turning on songs with disturbing lyrics while she was driving, could not have been done through the Tesla app.)
“Virtually every major automobile manufacturer offers a mobile app with similar functions to its customers,” Tesla lawyers wrote in a legal filing. “It is illogical and impractical to expect Tesla to monitor every vehicle owner for misuse of the mobile app.”
A judge dismissed Tesla from the case, saying it would be “difficult” to expect carmakers to determine which claims of app abuse were legitimate.
Katie Ray-Jones, chief executive of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, said abusive partners use a variety of internet-connected devices – from laptops to smart home products – to track and harass their victims. Technology that tracks a person's movements is of particular concern to domestic violence shelters, she said, as they “try to keep the shelter space confidential.”
As a preventive measure, Ms. Ray-Jones encourages people in relationships to have equal access to the technologies used to control their homes and belongings.
“If there's an app that's controlling your automobile, you both need to have access to it,” she said.
Adam Dodge, a former family law attorney turned digital security instructor, called car app stalking “a blind spot for victims and automakers.”
“Most of the victims I've spoken to are completely unaware that the car they trust is connected to the app,” he said. “They can't address threats they don't know about.”
As a possible solution to the problem, he and other domestic violence experts pointed to the Secure Connections Act, a recent federal law that allows victims of domestic abuse to more easily separate their phones from accounts shared with their abusers. Allows to do. A similar law should apply to cars, Mr. Dodge said, allowing people with court protective orders to more easily cut off an abuser's digital access to their car.
“For a victim to have access to a car is a lifeline,” he said. “No victim should have to choose between being chased by a car or not having a car. “But this is the crossroads where many of them find themselves.”